Leatherwood

At times the concrete, plastic, steel and glass world of city living, mixed with the unseen but felt electronic beams of the digital highway, becomes a cage of emotional energy that entombs you. The air is thick with the chemicals of life carrying what we need, and don’t need, to and from our cages. We feed our wants with manufactured expectations that are never realised. There is enough material in city life for Tom Waits to write urban beat jazz numbers for eternity.

The city world is a created world, but there are other worlds, most of which most of us see only on TV. Recently, I was able to slip out of the cage and disappear into a different world – the world of bees and beekeepers.

Tasmania has a tree that is different to any other tree in the world. The leatherwood tree grows only on the west coast of Tasmania, Australia. The world heritage-listed forest is a protected area that is washed by oxygen that has travelled over the longest uninterrupted expanse of ocean on Earth –  the air here has been measured to be the cleanest on the planet. 

The toughest of humans will tell you that standing on the shores of the west coast of Tasmania feels different. The energy is raw.

It does not take a strong imagination to feel that evolution is challenged by the elements and that survival here is deserved. The forests grow thick and the leatherwood has survived millennia as a competitor for the ingredients of life in this unforgiving world. 

Depending on how the nearest star warms our blue bubble, around January the leatherwood will open its soul and release colour and scent to signal its most favourite biological companion to come and feast on the nectar. Bees, arguably the most important insect on the planet, are drawn to the smell of forests of leatherwood as white and pink flowers release honey scents. The benefits for the leatherwood is that the bees assist in the pollination that allows for seeds to develop and drop to the rich forest floor, ensuring the continuation of the leatherwood. The nectar collected by the bees is transformed into leatherwood honey that will be stored to sustain the hive for when the next flowering begins.

Of course that is the story of the natural wild bee living in the west coast of Tasmania. Science often tries to explain the dialogue of nature, and whilst this has been achieved with some success, there remains a lot that is not written. Our species is constantly living in wonderment of what lies beyond the stars, and yet we have not yet begun to understand the magnetic trails that allow butterflies to cross the planet with precision. There are some, however, that dare to open the door slightly and peer into other worlds. 

Julian Wolfhagen is at the top of his food chain. He has about 50 million bees under his control and, for more than 40 years, has read and understood the language of the bees and environment in which they live. Cautiously (because he is discussing such things with a city dweller), Wolfhagen explained to me  the mystical connection of trees and forests, the personalities of bees and the unseen thread that connects everything. At the time, we were sitting around a fire, under the stars, in the wilderness that is the west coast of Tasmania. It made perfect sense.

Earlier that day: I am driving from Launceston to Maydena and, according to Google, I am about two hours from my destination. My phone is connected to my car and periodically a robot voice tells me a turn is coming up. When I think about it, I do live in a Tom Waits world and I cannot help but be cynical and amazed at the same time with technology. An electronic tone informs me that a text message has arrived and the screen shows a map with the words “go here” below it. I click the map and Google adds 40 minutes to my destination. 

The red symbol for where I am going is floating on lime green, not something you see often on Google maps driving around cities. I settle back into the sounds of David Gilmour Live at Pompeii and ride the road as my robot companion instructs me. My vehicle is packed with a drone, an SLR camera and a GoPro video camera to capture the sights of the leatherwood honey operation. I have a swag and supplies to last me two days. 

Two and a half hours later my robot friend tells me to turn right onto a dirt road that winds through thick forests. The road has been carved into the mountains with the strength of invading upright apes with machines and, whilst dirt, the road is flat, smooth and well-maintained . 

It is, however, a road less travelled — I am in the wilderness alone. If there is an issue and I have been sent to the wrong place, I may forced to face survival issues – overnight, by myself. Luckily, I brought some blue vein Tasmanian cheese. 

The very fact that Google is now a verb is justified when I am told in 100 metres the destination will be on my left. I round the corner, and see a clearing with bee hives sitting in the afternoon sun amongst the forest. I have arrived.

The serenity of the world of bees cannot be overstated. Whilst I was not brave enough to enter the hive area unprotected (full body bee suit and gloves deployed), I felt as though I could have sat cross-legged amongst the bees. The feeling of contentment was overwhelming. As I walked around the hives I was pretty much ignored as the bees came and went at the openings of the hives, stopping occasionally at the entrance to chat about the weather with other bees. It reminded me of snorkelling off the coast of Madang in Papua New Guinea with schools of tropical fish. 

The afternoon sun filtered through the trees and the sound a million leaves surfing a slight breeze, harmonising with the hum of the bees collecting and transforming nectar into leatherwood honey, was inspiring. 

They call it “robbing”. It is an apt description. With military precision, three trucks round the corner into sight and pull up alongside the hives. The hives are numbered and coded and locked down with metal straps onto pallets to keep them upright and secure. They are positioned so that when the robbers arrive the operation is quick, thorough and merciless. The atmosphere is transformed from the serene world of tranquillity and contemplation to that of invasion and disruption. 

Out of the trucks come white-clad, helmeted knights armed with modern-day shields and lances; come to conquer and claim the spoils for their own kingdom. They remove the metal straps and take the tops off the hives, exposing the upper storage levels of the honey repositories. Smoke is pumped around the hive to confuse the bees and tap into their genetic knowledge that fire means to “go slow” and “conserve energy”. 

Tricks and well-defined methods are deployed to encourage the bees to retreat from their treasure — those that are not defending the invasion descend to the lower levels to be closer to the queen. The boxes in which the honey is stored is then unceremoniously taken from the hive and placed on a pallet to be taken far away. A new empty box is put in its place, a mocking invitation to the bees to replace what has been taken.

And they will, it is all they know what to do.

They do not go quietly into the night however. They fight. They will fight to the death. The once-calm environment has now turned into a battlefield. Whilst the bees outnumber the invaders ten million to one, the defence protocols of the evolved apes are strong and they are not deterred. The air is thick with bees alerted to the invasion and the urge to, if not defend, extract revenge. Wherever there is a gap in the armour, they will seek it and exploit it. With no hesitation a bee will aim its singer, plunge it into your skin and inject toxins. 

Being top of the food chain has its advantages, and our brains have allowed us to remember well the pain of a sting, so it is unlikely that the gap in the armour will be exposed again. Or is it? Ethel most veteran invader can be tempted by fresh honey, and on this occasion a gap created to try and sneak in some honeycomb allowed one bee through, and a revengeful sting to a veteran beekeeper’s eyelid was the bee martyr’s prize. Evolution is an ongoing process. 

With the honey “robbed” and the tops back on the hives, the trucks roll away, full of the spoils of the invasion, to leave the hives to contemplate their losses and to regroup . Instinct kicks in, and the cycle begins again. 

Tasmania does not have enough bee-keepers to harvest the honey during the leatherwood season and an eclectic group of gypsy bee-keepers from various parts of the planet make up the tribe for this season. Travellers and explorers from Lithuania, Canada and Brazil make up the numbers with three Tasmanians on this particular adventure. 

We join them at a cabin in the woods in Maydena where beers are distributed, a fire is lit and camp is established. Logs serve as seats around the fire under. Mount Field in the distance catches the sun’s final rays. It’s the flip side of a Tom Waits urban jazz scene. 

Someone slowly rolls tobacco whilst others wander off to prepare some food. A swarm of gnats hovers around, weaving in and out of the smoke of the fire. A wild hive of bees has made its home in the walls of the cabin near the fire and there is a hum coming from that direction. The veteran of the tribe is telling stories of past years and adventures. Different accents from around the globe intersect with laughter and conversation. It has been a successful day and it is time now to reflect, relax and repair as the battle continues again tomorrow.

A few years ago a famous chef was filmed drizzling leatherwood honey onto blue vein cheese. It was a signature dish and one that contributed to Tasmanian leatherwood honey being considered amongst the best honey on the planet. The next day, during a break in the robbing of the hives, I brought out my blue cheese. We all moved away from the hives, removed our protective armour, and drizzled fresh-from-the-hive leatherwood honey onto the cheese and biscuit. 

It was a surreal moment. Until a rogue bee found us and stung me on the forehead.


Brett Charlton is the Launceston-based, Tasmanian manager for global logistics company Agility, and a freelance writer in several areas, but primarily business commentary for the Tasmanian Business Reporter under thought leadership for shipping and logistics.

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